Posts Tagged 'Pharaoh'

Divine Tension: Thoughts on the Parsha

In Beshalach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. After suffering the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally acquiesces to letting his slaves go free. It is strange that it does not say Pharaoh let them go. Instead we read:

Now when Pharaoh sent the people, God did not lead them by way of the land of Philistines, although it was closer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’(Exodus 13:17).

Was  does it mean that Pharoah sent the people? Was Pharaoh still in power? What are we to learn from this use of language Beshalach?

The text seems to suggest Pharaoh as the principle sending the Israelites on shlichut as his emissaries. This seems peculiar because the text clearly says that it was God alone who took them out of Egypt with a strong-arm. We see from the rest of the verse the psychological reality of the slaves. However bad it was being a slave, Egypt was familiar and would always be tempting to them when compared with the unknown. We see that even when the Israelites were free from Egypt, they were still slaves to Pharaoh. To receive the Torah they would need to understand that God alone was in power. Freedom would only be realized in their recognition of being a shaliach, an agent, of God.

In my life, it is hard to connect with the idea of being an agent of God. I hardly understand myself or my own motivations. How can I claim that a God, with whom I understand even less, is directing me? This claim of being an agent of God in the 21st century  is even harder to make against the backdrop of the horrible acts of terrorism perpetrated by people claiming to be enacting the will of God. So why do I keep my divine shackles on? Within the myth of divine direction, the circuitous path of my life has become more than just meaningless wandering. While few and far between from time to time I have experienced moments when it seems that water parts and my path is clear. This commitment has left me open to experience wonder. But in the end, I have found that I thrive in the tension between Judaism and the culture around me. This tension allows me to clarify my motives without being blinded by either.  Within this tension I have a sense of confidence, but hopeful a tempered arrogance. And some times even with this tension I can stop to sing along the way.

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Mitzrayim Syndrome

From August 23 to August 28, 1973 several bank employees of a bank  in Stockholm, Sweden were held hostage in a bank vault during a robbery.  During this standoff, the victims became emotionally attached to their captors, rejected assistance from government officials at one point, and even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal. The criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot coined the  term  “Norrmalmstorgssyndromet”  (Swedish) but abroad it became known as “Stockholm Syndrome“.

I was thinking about this when reading BeShalach, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see the war, and return to Egypt.’ (Exodus 13:17)

It was God through the agency of Moshe who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, but here the Torah gives credit to Pharaoh.  They were enslaved for so long that they actually thought they were let go from Egypt due to the good graces of Pharaoh as opposed to the actions of God. They knew they did not like slavery, but emancipation would have been enough for them. What is the purpose of leaving Egypt? What would be their motivation for the arduous journey ahead?

Maybe this is reason for taking the route they did. Taking the shorter route might encourage them to return to their captor in whom they became emotionally attached. Instead they took a longer route during which they will come to realize, through even more miracles, that they were removed from Egypt solely by God. Its seems expedient to take the easier path, but it often does not lead to liberation. As Rabbi Levi Lauer says, “Comfort in not a Jewish Value”. For certain things it is worth taking the long route. Often these are the most important things. In doing the hard work we can rediscover what motivates us and we liberate ourselves from our captors.

Collapse of Egypt

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the penultimate plague of darkness. There we read:

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moshe stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. ( Exodus 10: 21-23)

What was the purpose of three days of darkness? One of Rashi’s explanations of  this darkness is:

The Israelites searched [the Egyptians’ dwellings during the darkness] and saw their [own] belongings. When they were leaving [Egypt] and asked [for some of their things], and they [the Egyptians] said, “We have nothing,” he [the Israelite] would say to him, “I saw it in your house, and it is in such and such a place.” (Rashi on Exodus 10:22)

So while darkness brings to light the economic retribution, there were other ways that God could have disclosed the location of the Israelite property. God could have just told them where. Is there another meaning of this darkness beyond jump starting the first Claims Conference?

Being in the depth of winter makes it easier to relate to the plague of darkness. This experience of  winter reminds me of a wonderful Gemara  in Avoda Zara. There we learn:

Our Rabbis taught: When Adam HaRishon– the  primordial man-saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps [this is happening] because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry. (Avoda Zara 8a)

The world was not ending because he had eaten from the עֵץ  הַדַּעַת – Tree of Knowledge.  His hypothesis made sense. Adam was told that, “you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shalt surely die.” ( Genesis 2: 17) Despite having eaten of its fruit he did not die right away. Maybe his life and life itself was slowly coming to an end. Instead he was experiencing the winter shortening of days for the first time. Adam had a fantastic hypothesis which was proven false after the winter equinox. It is impossible to read this Gemara outside of a primordial origin of the Chanukkah story, but might this have any relevance to understanding the plague of darkness in Egypt?

After the first exodus from Egypt Avraham (who was also leaving with a great amount of wealth) had a falling out with Lot. In pursuit of peace Avraham decided that they needed to split up and he gave Lot a choice of which property Lot would take. There we read:

And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you go to Zoar. (Genesis 13:10)

Besides the opulence and amount of water from the river, in what ways was Egypt like the “Garden of the Lord”? This I do not know. But if the land of Egypt was like the Garden of Eden how might we understand the meaning of this plague of darkness? Well it is interesting to reflect on the human beings after Adam ate of the עֵץ  הַדַּעַת – Tree of Knowledge. There is no going back. The crises in Egypt was brought about by “new king over Egypt, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע-who knew not  Yosef.” ( Exodus 1:8)  For Adam the sin of eating caused knowing and for Pharaoh the sin was trying to “un-know” the gift of Yosef.

Adam finds out he will not die on that day. The impact of the sin is less of a punishment and more of a consequence. The darkness is not his death or the end of the world, but it does spell the end of his time in the “Garden of the the Lord”.  In light of this it seems that the plagues are Moshe’s attempt to remind Pharoah of what he “knows” to be true. The Egyptians have enslaved and decimated the descendents of Yosef, their savior. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond writes, “[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.” Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he is unable to listen to Moshe. The darkness of the 9th plague foreshadows the decline of Egyptian society. Diamond writes:

Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies’ histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.

The plague of darkness is one of Pharaoh’s last chances to succeed. Will he test his hypothesis and reconsider he approach like Adam? Instead of thinking of the long-term plans for his society and their place in the larger world, Pharaoh pursues his Israelite slaves and plunges his society into the sea. The darkness brings to light Pharaoh’s resolve to maintain his hypothesis despite any evidence. We all need to reflect on how we are often blinded by the things we “know” to be true.

Full of It

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s back and forth arguing for the Israelites’  freedom with Pharaoh. There we read:

And the Lord said to Moshe: ‘Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn, he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning; so, when he goes out to the water; and you shall stand by the river’s brink to meet him; and the rod which was turned to a serpent shall you take in your hand. And you shall say to him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you, saying: Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness; and, behold, you have not heeded until now; thus said the Lord: In this you shall know that I am the Lord–behold, I will smite with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink water from the river.’ (Exodus 7:14-18)

The simple meaning is that God is directing Moshe to have a power meeting with Pharaoh in the morning to negotiate their release from slavery.  That would make sense if they were meeting at Starbuck’s, but why is this meeting scheduled to happen at the water? Quoting the Midrash in reference to this Rashi  writes:

When he goes out to the water– to relive himself for Pharaoh would pretend to be a god and would say that he did not need to relieve himself. He would arise early and go out to the Nile and secretly tend to his  needs.  ( Shemot Rabbah 9:8)

In Rashi’s understanding Moshe is challenging Pharaoh’s very claim to power. Pharoah is not a god, rather  just an ordinary man. Moshe knows this because he grew up in Pharoah’s house. Moshe knows that Pharoah’s poop stinks just like everybody else. This is interesting in reference to how the Israelites understood their own standing in reference to smell earlier in the book. There we read:

HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants.(Exodus 5:21)

But more on this in another post. So for now, back to Pharoah doing his business in the water in the early morning. In light of Pharoah’s hardened heart and his resolve not to let the Israelites go, this image depicts Pharaoh as being constipated and not being able to let us go. It is as if Moshe is coming with prunes and Metamucil to encourage Pharaoh’s movement on the issue.

But joking aside, maybe there is even more going on here. Why is this the location that God wants Pharaoh to “know that I am the Lord”? Water is the site of extermination of all of the boys of Moshe’s generation at the hands of the Egyptians. Its seems fitting that the Egyptians will suffer through the plague of the water turning to blood. But water is not such a simple symbol in Moshe’s life. This water is also the site of Moshe’s salvation and the source of his name i.e. drawn from water. Why is this the site of engagement between Moshe and Pharaoh?

This reminds me of one of my favorite Aggadot. In Berachot we learn:

Rabbi Akiba said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Yehoshua to a bathroom, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learned that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learned that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Said Ben Azzai to him (Rabbi Akiba), ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?’ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Akiba to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learned that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learned it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Rabbi Yehudah said to him, ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ‘ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn.  ( Berachot 62a)

The most striking thing about this Gemarah is not that Rabbi Akiba learned Torah from Rabbi Yehoshua in the bathroom or even that Ben Azzai learns the same three things from Rabbi Akiba in the bathroom. It seems crazy that Ben Azzai admonished Rabbi Akiba for learning those lessons in that way only to follow Rabbi Akiba into the bathroom to learn the same lessons the same way. Some lessons can be taught in words and others need to be modeled. Needing to see Torah in action with our own eyes presents us with a great model for the best in experiential Jewish education, but that is also a topic for another time. Back to Moshe and Pharoah meeting in the bathroom.

We learn in the Gemara, “It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn”. What did  Moshe need to learn from Pharaoh that necessitated following him into the bathroom? I think there could be a number of answers to this question, but one might be that Moshe needed to come to peace the fact that he had nothing to learn from Pharaoh. Moshe is a complex character caught between the house of Pharaoh in which he was raised and his birth nation who are Pharaoh’s slaves. Moshe did just have contempt for the Egyptians, he loved them and they shared a culture. Pharaoh’s heart was already hardened , maybe having Moshe return to the place of his salvation and naming was to help Moshe develop his resolve and commitment to the Israelite nation. Pharaoh might have a great man, but truly great people have nothing to hide. Moshe needed to realize that the Torah was going to be given to his birth nation at Sinai and it was not coming out of Pharaoh no matter how much he pushed. There is a lot of Torah to be learned. We need our teachers to be the right role models. The wrong teachers are just full of it.


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